When playing with any classical music ensemble – whether it be large or small – it is really not enough to be technically accomplished and to have practiced your part.
The best players have extra abilities above and beyond this. They can adapt and synchronize themselves to just about any kind of group, much like how a chameleon can change colors and patterns in order to match its surrounding environment.
At its core, this X-factor – of how to be a better ensemble player – is not such a huge mystery. I would categorize it into two, very general areas:
- knowing yourself, and
- attenuating yourself.
1.) Know yourself
Music-making that transcends the notes on the page can be like a meeting of the minds. To prepare for this, it is a good idea to be armed with intimate knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses.
A few basic tips to think about:
- Know your part.
- Know the unique quirks of your instrument.
- Know the intonation tendencies of the harmonic series, especially in relation to fingerings and keys.
- Know your own limitations, biases and prejudices in relation to the instrument and the music on the stand.
On the general topic of weaknesses, be prepared to discuss them openly in a chamber environment (i.e. “Can we play a little louder here? I cannot play softer than a clarinet“).
However in a larger group – such as a symphony orchestra – be prepared to compromise, mask or minimize them as best you can.
- Study the Hornmasters
- Understand the physics of brass instruments
- Understand the harmonic series
- Practice harmonics
- Question authority
- Be prepared and know your part
- Know your limits while planning for success
- Think logically about improvement
- Think about alternate fingerings
- Implement gadgets, if needed
- At mid-career, re-think your routine
2.) Attenuate yourself
Ideally, music-making is an unconditional act.
It is very similar to being a member of a team-based sport. It involves a certain amount of flexibility and the ability to surrender to what is going on and adapt to it.
That being said it can sometimes be easier said than done. When a sports team is having a meltdown it might be attributed one thing or another – a bad game plan, someone is hogging the ball, an important player is out-of-sync, or that the entire team is in a funk.
For musicians, personal emotions and drama can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks. We can be a temperamental lot to deal with at times and occasionally, our peccadilloes can get the best of us.
Being able to separate our personal biases from the task at hand then, is tantamount towards staying attuned and being synchronized to the ensemble at-large. There can be a real joy to experience in being able to do this, especially when the group is made up of people that you enjoy playing with.
That being said, here are a few more tips to ponder:
- Know the general tendencies of the instruments and players you are working with.
- Accept and cooperate with the tendencies of the players you are working with.
- Know and accept the tendencies of the group leader – both strengths and weaknesses.
- Know and accept your own limitations, biases and prejudices – especially in relation to your own personal attitude and current state of mind.
- Avoid drama in the workplace and adopt indifference as a coping tool
- Avoid this guy, his attitude and just about everything he says
- When appropriate, make statements
- Develop a thicker skin
- Think about leaderships styles
- Think about conductor styles
- Stay in sync and avoid playing games
- Go with the flow